ATTILA (d. 453), king of the Huns, became king in 433, along with his brother Bleda, on the death of his uncle Roua. We hear but little as to Bleda, who died about 445, possibly slain by his brother’s orders. In the first eight years of his reign Attila was chiefly occupied in the wars with other barbarian tribes, by which he made himself virtually supreme in central Europe. His own special kingdom comprised the countries which are now called Hungary and Transylvania, his capital being possibly not far from the modern city of Buda-Pest; but having made the Ostrogoths, the Gepidae and many other Teutonic tribes his subject-allies, and having also sent his invading armies into Media, he seems for nearly twenty years to have ruled practically without a rival from the Caspian to the Rhine. Very early in his reign, Honoria, grand-daughter of the emperor Theodosius II., being subjected to severe restraint on account of an amorous intrigue with one of the chamberlains of the palace, sent her ring to the king of the Huns and called on him to be her husband and her deliverer. Nothing came of the proposed engagement, but the wrongs of Honoria, his affianced wife, served as a convenient pretext for some of the constantly recurring embassies with which Attila, fond of trampling on the fallen majesty of Rome, worried and bullied the two courts of Constantinople and Ravenna. Another frequent subject of complaint was found in certain sacred vessels which the bishop of Sirmium had sent as a bribe to the secretary of Attila, and which had been by him, fraudulently, as his master contended, pawned to a silversmith at Rome. There were also frequent and imperious demands for the surrender of fugitives who had sought shelter from the wrath of Attila within the limits of the empire. One of the return embassies from Constantinople, that sent in 448, had the great advantage of being accompanied by a rhetorician named Priscus, whose minute journalistic account of the negotiations, including as it does a vivid picture of the great Hun in his banquet-hall, is by far the most valuable source of information as to the court and camp of Attila. What lends additional interest to the story is the fact that in the ambassador’s suite there was an interpreter named Vigilas, who for fifty pounds of gold had promised to assassinate Attila. This base design was discovered by the Hunnish king, but had never been revealed to the head of the embassy or to his secretary. The situations created by this strange combination of honest diplomacy and secret villainy are described by Priscus with real dramatic power.
In 450 Theodosius II., the incapable emperor of the East, died, and his throne was occupied by a veteran soldier named Marcian, who answered the insulting message of Attila in a manlier tone than his predecessor. Accordingly the Hun, who had something of the bully in his nature, now turned upon Valentinian III., the trembling emperor of the West, and demanded redress for the wrongs of Honoria, and one-half of Valentinian’s dominions as her dowry. Allying himself with the Franks and Vandals, he led his vast many-nationed army to the Rhine in the spring of 451, crossed that river, and sacked, apparently, most of the cities in Belgic Gaul. Most fortunately for Europe, the Teutonic races already settled in Gaul rallied to the defence of the empire against invaders infinitely more barbarous than themselves. Prominent in this new coalition was Theodoric, king of the Visigoths, whose capital city was Toulouse. His firm fighting alliance with the Roman general Aëtius, with whom he had had many a conflict in previous years, was one of the best auguries for the new Europe that was to arise out of the ruins of the Roman empire. Meanwhile Attila had reached the Loire and was besieging the strong city of Orléans. The citizens, under the leadership of their bishop Anianus, made a heroic defence, but the place was on the point of being taken when, on the 24th of June, the allied Romano-Gothic army was seen on the horizon. Attila, who knew the difficulty that he should have in feeding his immense army if his march was further delayed, turned again to the north-east, was persuaded by the venerable bishop Lupus to spare the city of Troyes, but halted near that place in the Catalaunian plains and offered battle to his pursuers Aëtius and Theodoric. The battle which followed—certainly one of the decisive battles of the world—has been well described by the Gothic historian Jordanes as “ruthless, manifold, immense, obstinate.” It lasted for the whole day, and the number of the slain is variously stated at 175,000 and 300,000. All such estimates are, of course, untrustworthy, but there is no doubt that the carnage was terrible. The Visigothic king was slain, but the victory, though hardly earned, remained with his people and his allies. Attila did not venture to renew the engagement on the morrow, but retreated, apparently in good order, on the Rhine, recrossed that river and returned to his Pannonian home. From thence in the spring of 452 he again set forth to ravage or to conquer Italy. Her great champion Aëtius showed less energy in her cause than he had shown in his defence of Gaul. After a stubborn contest, Attila took and utterly destroyed Aquileia, the chief city of Venetia, and then proceeded on his destructive course, capturing and burning the cities at the head of the Adriatic, Concordia, Altinum and Patavium (Padua). The fugitives from these cities, but especially from the last, seeking shelter in the lagoons of the Adriatic, laid the foundations of that which was one day to become the glorious city of Venice. Upon Milan and the cities of western Lombardy the hand of Attila seems to have weighed more lightly, plundering rather than utterly destroying; and at last when Pope Leo I., at the head of a deputation of Roman senators, appeared in his camp on the banks of the Mincio, entreating him not to pursue his victorious career to the gates of Rome, he yielded to their entreaties and consented to cross the Alps, with a menace, however, of future return, should the wrongs of Honoria remain unredressed. As he himself jokingly said: he knew how to conquer men, but the Lion and the Wolf (Leo and Lupus) were too strong for him. No further expeditions to Italy were undertaken by Attila, who died suddenly in 453, in the night following a great banquet which celebrated his marriage with a damsel named Ildico. Notwithstanding some rumours of violence it is probable that his death was natural and due to his own intemperate habits.
Under his name of Etzel, Attila plays a great part in Teutonic legend (see Nibelungenlied) and under that of Atli in Scandinavian Saga, but his historic lineaments are greatly obscured in both. He was short of stature, swarthy and broad-chested, with a large head which early turned grey, snub nose and deep-set eyes. He walked with proud step, darting a haughty glance this way and that as if he felt himself lord of all.
The chief authorities for the life of Attila are Priscus, Jordanes, the Historia Miscella, Apollonius Sidonius and Gregory of Tours. (T. H.)